An appeals court on Tuesday ruled that a defamation lawsuit former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin brought against the New York Times can move forward, reversing a district judge’s decision to dismiss the case.
The three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did not weigh in on the merits of Palin’s claims, but rather said the lower court erred in how it handled the proceedings before throwing the lawsuit out.
Palin sued the New York Times for a 2017 editorial, written days after a gunman targeted Republican congressmen practicing baseball, that connected materials promoted by a pro-Palin super PAC to the attack on then-Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords (AZ). Giffords was shot by a gunman at a constituent meet-and-greet in 2011. The super PAC distributed a map that included the districts of Giffords and other lawmakers in crosshairs for their support of the Affordable Care Act. There’s no evidence the map drove Giffords’ shooter to launch the attack.
The Times corrected the editorial and even apologized for the mistake. But that did not stop Palin from bringing the defamation suit, which, according to the appeals court decision Tuesday, can now move to the discovery phase.
The appeals court’s opinion focused mainly on the procedural issues in the district court’s dismissal of the case and specifically that the judge’s decision in favor of the Times’ motion to dismiss came after he held an evidentiary hearing, where the editorial page editor James Bennet testified.
“We agree that the hearing runs headlong into the federal rules,” the appeals court wrote. The appeals court knocked the judge’s move to take into account Bennet’s testimony, in siding with the Times, without first moving the case to a summary judgment phase, which has a different set of legal requirements.
“The judge both relied on matters outside the pleadings to decide the motion to dismiss and did not convert the motion into one for summary judgment,” the appeals court said, which was impermissible under federal rules.
Beyond the procedural issues, the appeals court also said that Palin’s allegations were plausible and therefore should have survived a motion to dismiss.
“The test is whether the complaint is plausible, not whether it is less plausible than an alternative explanation,” the appeals court, said referring to Bennet’s testimony.
“The jury may ultimately agree with the district court’s conclusion that Bennet was credible — but it is the jury that must decide,” the appeals court said. “Therefore, at the pleading stage, we are satisfied that Palin has met her burden to plead facts giving rise to the plausible inference that Bennet published the allegedly defamatory editorial with actual malice.”
Read the opinion below: